A Man Vanishes

A Man Vanishes

Format: DVD

Release date: 24 October 2011

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Shôhei Imamura

Writer: Shôhei Imamura, Kôji Numata

Original story by: Akiyuki Nosaka

Original title: Ningen jôhatsu

Cast: Yoshie Hayakawa, Shôhei Imamura, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi

Japan 1967

130 mins

Mockumentaries have hit a rich vein of late, with the is-she-or-isn’t-she flirtation with truth and lies, the fact, fiction or faction of I Am Still Here, Cat Fish and Exit through the Gift Shop; the pranking of Borat and Bruno and the revival of the found footage horror genre of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Much of this can be traced to the nefarious activities of Endemol, and their swinish exploitation of reality to serve up Reality(TM), the human sacrifice (vote who to eliminate!), the pseudo-religious, cod-psychology rituals of the confessional and the gutting of any sense of distinction between the private and the public. Add to this our own starring in social networking sites and the fact that the political event of the decade resembled a set piece from a tent pole Hollywood movie but filmed in a way that anticipated Cloverfield. Jean Baudrillard couldn’t have written a better script for the noughties, the decade that made navel-gazing an internationally popular sport and gave us Saddam Hussein’s execution filmed on a camera phone and uploaded to YouTube.

It perhaps will come as a surprise then that over 40 years ago, Shôhei Imamura created the quintessential mockumentary, A Man Vanishes, a film essay revealing with cunning wit precisely these concerns and anticipating the traps of reality for filmmakers. In 1965, a plastic salesman, Tadashi Oshima, goes missing. There are many possible motives - guilt over an embezzlement at work, which was discovered and probably stymied his chances of promotion, the impending marriage to an overbearing fiancée. We are told that 90,000 Japanese men disappear every year, responding to social claustrophobia, work pressure and the watchful family. It is two years after the fact and a documentary crew, with the aid of Oshima’s fiancée - known as ‘the Rat’ - are on his trail. They try to reconstruct the events leading up to his disappearance, interviewing his family, his various girlfriends, his boss and workmates, and even a medium. We find out details of his life: he was a heavy drinker, successful with the ladies, used a lot of pomade on his hair. The crew often resort to hidden cameras and provocation of dubious ethical grounding. The pace of the film is insistent and driven, conversations and interviews overlap and fall out of synch with the images, still pictures are used and little black oblongs ostensibly preserve anonymity, but actually feel more like a stain of admitted guilt.

And yet for all the busyness and activity, Oshima is elusive. In fact, it is the very investigation itself - as indicated by the present tense of the title A Man Vanishes, not, as might be expected after two years have passed, ‘A Man Vanished’ - that erases his existence. He ceases to be a human being and becomes a missing person poster, an enigma, paradoxically flattened by the process of documentation. He now exists in Reality, and no longer reality.

The film begins to lose interest in him anyway and seems more concerned with revealing and examining its own methodology. The documentary makers meet like a secret cabal, a paranoiac’s worst nightmare. Their apparent objectivity is compromised by their obvious wish to manipulate and produce a good story. ‘It has to be more like an investigative film,’ the director (Imamura himself) mutters at one point. They use subtitles, not only to tell you who people are in relation to Oshima, but to pass on their own judgements. Why is Oshima’s fiancée known as the Rat? They become increasingly intrusive in the film as the investigation (like an investigation, but not actually an investigation) gets stuck on a hypothesis suggested in the interview with the medium. Was the Rat’s sister having an affair with Oshima? A tense dinner is arranged, which seems like one of those Big Brother moments when the contestants decide to have it out, and during which the sister (aka the Witch) is confronted with both the accusations and a witness (constantly referred to as the Fishmonger) who saw them together.

At this point, Imamura decisively intervenes, literally tearing the walls down and admitting the film to be a fiction, but the slipperiness of the construct and even the admission of fictionality doesn’t stop the film from its relentless pursuit of some larger meaning. This ‘meaning’ has completely erased the man of the title. In fact, if the man just turned up, the film would still go on searching for the ‘meaning’ that is only significant via its absence. It is no coincidence that the street argument that concludes the film (and which anticipates Jerry Springer’s spawn), as well as the argument at the dinner, hinges entirely on the veracity (or otherwise) of two mutually contradictory witnesses. Someone has to be lying for someone to be telling the truth. In fact, even Imamura’s confession that the film is a fiction is to some extent a lie. Oshima did exist and did disappear and the two sisters were real, though the Rat was paid a salary to appear in the film.

The intriguing sequel to this is the fact that Imamura went on to spend the next 10 years working exclusively on television documentaries. It’s almost as if A Man Vanishes represents a cautionary preface, an admission of the problematics before dedicating what was to be a significant chunk of his career to that strange and stained genre.

John Bleasdale

Red Psalm

Red Psalm

Format: DVD

Release date: 24 October 2011

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Miklós Jancsó

Writer: Gyula Hernádi

Original title: Még kér a nép

Cast: Andrea Ajtony, András Ambrus, Lajos Balázsovits

Hungary 1971

82 mins

Filled with catchy revolutionary tunes and lush colour imagery of attractive peasants in a fertile landscape, Red Psalm (Még kér a nép, 1971) has an irresistible appeal, which is difficult to achieve with a largely non-narrative film with limited characterisation. Red Psalm centres on the Hungarian peasant uprisings of the late 1800s. The peasants engage in a series of confrontations with landowners, the Church and the military, each meeting an occasion for brief ideological exchanges. Crucially, unlike Eisenstein’s films, Red Psalm does not present stultifying certainties, but conflicting politico-economic ideas, which the audience can assess for themselves.

The film’s director, Miklós Jancsó, is a master of the long take: the entire film contains only 28 shots. With the large number of actors involved, and the fact that they are in perpetual motion (dancing as they sing, or pacing as they debate political ideas), it clearly took great skill to control the contents of each shot.

Jancsó’s style calls to mind two other directors, Béla Tarr and Aleksandr Sokurov. With the latter he shares highly choreographed long takes, and similarly uses visual interest to make up for limited narrative interest. Jancsó’s images are not as richly textured as Sokurov’s, yet their simple symbolism is equally pleasing. This is where there is something of Tarr in Jancsó: compensating for surface minimalism, there is a sense of equally important intangible elements at work. While not as otherworldly as Tarr’s films, Red Psalm, through symbolism and political debate, evokes ideas that ennoble the physical world, making it semantically richer.

The new Second Run DVD of Red Psalm contains one extra feature, also by Jancsó: Message of Stones (A kövek üzenete - Hegyalja, 1994), the third part in a documentary series, focused on the decimation of Hungary’s Jewish population. At the outset, the film is not promising: it feels more like a home video than a professional production, and revolves around taciturn old folk, rural roads and sleepy towns, without any voice-over to explain their significance. But Jancsó’s style soon asserts itself, and the relationship with the main feature becomes clearer. The documentary has a characteristically rousing soundtrack, and artistically composed shots come to balance more amateurish framings. Jancsó observes expatriate Jews returning to Hungary, where they visit ancestral monuments, abandoned synagogues and their parents’ and grandparents’ former houses and lands, long since appropriated by non-Jewish families. The film’s final scenes show a group of Jewish children learning folk dances, which they joyfully perform in a landscape where their ancestors were eradicated. When the children caper through ruined buildings, they seem like green shoots breaking through scorched earth. The sense of hope, renewal and determination these scenes evoke are of a piece with Red Psalm‘s spirit of unity and idealism.

The DVD’s liner notes feature an informative essay by Peter Hames, in which the scholar explains the significance of Red Psalm, defines Jancsó’s style, summarises the director’s career and contextualises his work.

Second Run have also released The Miklós Jancsó Collection Box Set on November 21, a 3-disc set comprising My Way Home (&#205gy jöttem, 1964), The Round-Up (Szegénylegények,1965), and The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katonák, 1967).

Alison Frank

Magic Trip

Magic Trip

Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 November 2011

Venues: Curzon (London only)

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 28 November 2011

Distributor: Studiocanal

Directors: Alex Gibney, Alison Ellwood

USA 2011

107 mins

Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters’ trip across America in the summer of 1964 is a keystone of the countercultural mythos, largely due to Tom Wolfe’s much read ‘new journalism’ non-fiction book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. The legend runs that Kesey, an ex-Olympic wrestling hope and Stanford graduate, on the rise after the positive reaction to his novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, took a yellow school bus and, with a revolving cast of kooks, painted it in rainbow colours, christened it ‘Further’ and took it on the road with Beat legend Neal Cassady (the Dean Moriarty of Kerouac’s On The Road) at the wheel. They made a long arc starting in La Honda, California, and sailing through LA, Arizona, and New Orleans to end up at New York to see the World’s Fair, and deliver Kesey to a promotional event for his second (published) novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. On the way much marijuana and LSD were imbibed, the pranksters hooked up with Timothy Leary and sundry Beat writers, many squares were freaked out and social conventions overturned and, y’know, everybody learned stuff about themselves, and the road was paved for the full-blown hippie freak-out of the later 60s, especially by the Acid Test, which occurred after the bus carried on moving after New York and became a kind of roving psychedelic party centre.

Kesey wanted to document the original trip, but seemed to believe that his prose wasn’t suitable for the task, and so filled ‘Further’ with tape recorders and 16mm movie cameras. Forty-odd hours of footage were shot, but unfortunately guys called Zonker tripping balls on acid don’t necessarily make for the most technically adept film crews. Much of the resultant film was haphazardly framed and composed, key events of life on the road went undocumented, and, more often than not they failed to synch up the sound correctly, resulting in chipmunk-voiced mayhem. Whatever Kesey’s ambitions for the film were, it largely ended up as background projection at various parties, with only the Dexedrine-assisted Cassady making it through the whole thing when the Pranksters attempted to screen it (unedited) for the first time. Magic Trip, a documentary by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, valiantly attempts to make something cohesive, feature-length and watchable from all that tape and stock, incorporating archive news reportage to give context, a little subtle reconstruction to fill in the gaps, some trippy animation frills and an artfully layered soundtrack culled from various interview sources, held together with a linking, questioning voice-over by Stanley Tucci.

The result is fascinating, but largely for the way it contradicts and undercuts the legend in various ways. For a start, the Merry Pranksters don’t look the part. They were, in Kesey’s words, ‘too young to be beatniks and too old to be hippies’, but I’m sure most readers of Wolfe’s work still pictured a mass of Indian-flared fabrics and flowing locks, not the vaguely preppy-looking Beach Boys session players the film reveals - Kesey is balding, for Christ’s sake. They are graduates, ex-marines, women seeking work at the World’s Fair aquatic ballet. These aren’t drop-outs or revolutionaries, at least, not yet.

Secondly, the trip was a bummer, or at least much more of one than most of the later hippies must have assumed. Wolfe’s prose (or Kesey’s, if he’d written his own book) could give forward momentum and meaning to the events depicted, putting you in the centre of the giddy psychedelic whirlwind. But other people’s trips, like their dreams, are personal, internal. 16mm film stock doesn’t record a kaleidoscopic audio-visual/emotional freak-out, it just shows a bunch of stuff happening, or, more often, not happening. Leary was apparently freaked out by the bus and his inhabitants and stayed in his room when they came to visit, Kerouac is a bitter old man nursing a cold beer, the World’s Fair is a let-down. Someone is left behind, another is lost to a psychiatric hospital. Time and again the voice-over reveals how much various Pranksters (mainly the women) wanted to get off the damn bus and go home, how much the soap opera couplings and uncouplings created tension and rancour, and how little of Cassady’s speed-freak psychobabble you could endure before wanting to beat him over the head with a steering wheel just to get him to shut the hell up for God’s sake. Magic Trip shows the ramshackle, unheroic reality of it all. An especially queasy sequence has the Pranksters rushing to dive in a lake outside New Orleans before realising, with mounting paranoia, that they are the only white guys there, swimming in the wrong part of a racially segregated lake. I’m sure that most viewers these days will be a touch disappointed that their reaction to this turn of events is not to throw together a desegregated protest party/bar-b-q, but to grab their stuff and get the hell out of there as fast as their pasty white legs can carry them.

Still, a fair bit of the footage makes you envious that you weren’t on the bus, at least for a short while; the restored photography is crisp and colourful; the landscapes, and some of the passengers, are beautiful. A great sequence creates entertaining imagery to accompany Kesey’s tape-recorded Stanford University LSD experience (part of the CIA’s MKULTRA programme!). There is much here to amuse, bemuse and tantalise; we get to see the inside of a particular bubble, with Ginsberg and Kerouac and the Grateful Dead, a nascent scene before it went global. And then trace it’s decline. Cassady was a nowhere man outside of the ‘Further’ driving seat, ending up dead on some rail tracks in Mexico. The Pranksters atomised, and Kesey never wrote another novel worth a damn. Still, we have this. It’s a record of being where it’s at in 1964, even if where it’s at is never truly, y’know, all that. Groove on that, brothers and sisters.

Mark Stafford

The Ballad of Narayama

The Ballad of Narayama

Format: Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD)

Release date: 24 October 2011

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Shôhei Imamura

Writer: Shôhei Imamura

Based on two stories by: Shichirô Fukazawa

Original title: Narayama-bushi kô

Cast: Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Tonpei Hidari

Japan 1983

130 mins

In Chekhov’s short story ‘Peasants’, a waiter from the city has fallen sick and takes his family back to his village to be looked after, and wait for death. Almost immediately he realises this is a mistake. He’s just another mouth to feed and before long his own family are making it clear to him he should hurry up and die. The cruelty of survival is similarly the focus of Shôhei Imamura’s stunning film, based on a conflation of two short stories by Shichirô Fukazawa, each of which had already been given separate film treatments. In a remote mountain village, winters are harsh and basic survival is ground out of the earth. As a result, the elderly, on reaching 70, go up the mountain to die. Granny Orin (played by the excellent Sumiko Sakamoto) is a sturdy 69 with a mouthful of her own teeth, but feels her time has come. It is partly out of respect for tradition, partly because of religious beliefs that in that way she will see her ancestors again, but also because of a not-so-subtle societal pressure: she begins to be the butt of jokes and songs about the demon hag who has 33 teeth. The memory of her husband’s disappearance still makes her feel she has lost face.

As in the Chekhov short story, there is a shocking frankness about death and the need for a society on the edge of survival to get rid of its excess baggage, even when these are your relatives. Female babies are sold to the visiting salt merchant, unwanted children are killed on birth. A new born babe that is found in the field sets off a quarrel, not about murder, but about fly-tipping: ‘I don’t need that kind of fertilizer,’ an aggrieved peasant complains. Sexual behaviour is also restricted, with only the eldest son allowed to marry and the other men having to make do with what sex they can grab. Risuke, Granny Orin’s smelly second son, makes do with the neighbour’s dog when the urge takes him.

Imamura unashamedly places the village in the context of a nature that is drippingly red in tooth and claw. As humans hunt, so do eagles, sometimes stealing the same prey; as human rut, so do frogs; as humans are cruel, so we see the murderous affections of the praying mantis. And their survival is genuinely on a knife’s edge. This is not a Malthusian abstraction, or a Logan’s Run dystopia. Each family continually keeps track of the mouths to feed and does the math. They watch as potatoes are counted out and infractions are punished with an appalling severity. ‘I wonder if we’ll survive this winter,’ one villager muses aloud.

And yet for all the harshness and difficulty this is a bizarrely beautiful film, as it follows the village through its four seasons, from winter on. The change of the light, the landscape with the dominating and death-threatening mountain as well as the fire-lit interiors are beautifully rendered, without ever appearing anything other than real.

Before going up the mountain Granny Orin needs to resolve some unfinished business. Her eldest son’s wife has died and he needs a replacement. Stinky Risuke, who uses his breath as a weapon, also needs to have some sex otherwise the neighbours are going to find out about why their dog is so unhappy. The younger son is in a relationship with a girl from a bad family, who are suspected of thieving. The fall of this family is precipitous and is anticipated by the snake that serves as their house god abandoning their hut.

The main relationship is between Granny and Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata), her eldest son. She fears he is soft-hearted, too much like his father, and he is reluctant to let her go up the mountain. It is partly to convince him that she is ageing that Orin bashes her own teeth out, the actress having her own front teeth removed for the purposes of the film with an admirable commitment to realism. However, Tatsuhei is a complex character, troubled literally by ghosts from the past, and although he might demur from carrying out a punishment one day, on another he might well participate. And in the end it will be Tatsuhei who will carry Granny Orin up to her final resting place as the first snows threaten to fall.

Imamura’s achievement here is in presenting a radically different society with values that clash directly with what we today consider universal and inalienable rights. And yet this is not of mere anthropological interest, he is neither romanticising nor patronising the villagers. There is broad comedy and deep tragedy, both the beauty and the cruel indifference of nature, tenderness, humour, love and cruelty. Our understanding of the village is never allowed the privileged position of judgement. The last 30 minutes of the film are as moving and magical as anything I’ve ever seen.

John Bleasdale



Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 November 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Revolver Entertainment

Director: Justin Kurzel

Writers: Shaun Grant, Justin Kurzel

Cast: Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris

Australia 2011

119 mins

Welcome to the stocky, pudgy face of evil. Justin Kurzel’s film manages to make the vile criminal clan of Animal Kingdom seem positively well-adjusted, sharing with that work a shabby suburban aesthetic, a passive main protagonist and its roots in an authentic tale of Australian depravity. It portrays a darker world, though, a medicated plywood and lace curtain hellhole were the police never tread. Living in a housing trust home in a Northern Adelaide development, a one-kangaroo town of overgrown grass and coin slot entertainment, Elizabeth (Louise Harris) is initially pleased when bright-eyed and bushy-bearded John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) shows up to scare a local paedo creep away from her three sons. As the oldest, Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), starts to look up to John as a father figure, the latter goes on a moral mission to rid the area of the creeps, weirdos and junkies that the criminal system seems unable or unwilling to handle. But there’s a sliding scale of criminal justice, and John’s idea of who needs to be punished and how seems to slide more than most. He’s charming, manipulative, coercive and abusive, and people have a habit of disappearing whenever he’s around…

Authentically, viscerally convincing in its performances and milieu, Snowtown throbs with tension and a deep sense of wrongness from its first reel onwards. The horrors within it are always located in a recognisable setting, John’s poisonous bullshit is always served up around the table with the food. Arse rape takes place to a cricket commentary, kangaroos are dismembered on the back porch, kids on bikes and scooters blithely sail past a house where a man is being tortured to death, and when a gun first appears it does so through brightly coloured plastic strip curtains. Cute knick-knacks and ornaments litter the shelves above the wood panelling, and in front of them everybody is on smack or morally compromised or bears the mark of Cain. Nobody looks like a movie star (Henshall is the only pro actor in the cast), the sound design is oppressive and exhilarating, and the photography is perfectly unbeautiful. Without Louise Harris as the mother I strongly suspect it would be unwatchable; you never stop believing that she loves her sons and that she is essentially a good woman - but she largely vanishes from the film in its later stages. It’s a brilliantly realised nightmare, though not one that I imagine the Australian tourist board are too happy with.

It’s horrible. It’s brilliant. It’s horrible.

Mark Stafford

Lawrence of Belgravia

Lawrence of Belgravia

55th BFI London Film Festival

12-27 October 2011, various venues, London

LFF website

This subtle portrait of a reclusive indie musician seems to have generated one of London Film Festival’s warmest responses, with extra screenings needed for all the fans of Lawrence, the Birmingham-born progenitor of 80s and 90s bands Felt and Denim. Lawrence’s story is not a happy one: Felt’s ethereal guitar pop was arguably superior to, say, The Smiths, yet failed to rise above cult status; with Denim, Lawrence nailed 1990s indie’s obsession with nostalgia early in the decade, with a skewed wit and obsessive rigour that was probably a bit too much for Oasis and Blur fans. Mental health and drug problems have dogged his current band, Go-Kart Mozart, whose perverse synth-rock songs are exercises in self-sabotage lit by some occasionally inspired tunes and arrangements. Rather than construct a biopic focusing on his more palatable past, director Paul Kelly lets the present-day Lawrence steer the film, and it’s the better for it, albeit searingly moving and uncomfortable in places. We see Go-Kart Mozart stumble through rehearsals, recordings and some live shows, while Lawrence is interviewed by journalists (who seem in the main to still be holding a torch for Felt), sifts through archives of personal ephemera and moves into a new council flat on the edges of the City of London after being evicted from his previous home. The capital’s loneliness, its sharp, cold angles, are soulfully evoked by the filmmaker who also helped create St Etienne’s paean to London, Finisterre (2005).

Kelly’s a friend of the singer, and you suspect some of Lawrence’s more unpleasant, paranoid traits have been softened in the edit - although not that much; there’s a scene in which a new Go-Kart song seemingly about a fear of vaginas gets an airing. What he draws from Lawrence most valuably is his sharp critical intelligence and instinctive feel for pop music’s power and history - things that seem unextinguished by failure or addiction or age. Listening to Lawrence talk about music, the secret magic life of it, is a pleasure, however spectral and neglected he looks now: if things had worked out a little differently, if Go-Kart’s ‘We’re Selfish and Lazy and Greedy’ had taken off like ‘Common People’, perhaps he, like Jarvis Cocker - another almost-failure from the 80s who triumphed in the following decade - would be signing Faber deals and headlining stadia while pontificating about rare records on the radio. It’s this plucky eccentric almost-a-contender status that I think some of my fellow viewers of Lawrence of Belgravia seek to confer on him, but while it’s well-meaning, it implies a slightly sour triumph; Lawrence quite obviously would have liked to have been much more of a real star before becoming the outsider-ish ex-star he now appears to be.

Musicians from the 90s, thought to be retired, seem to appear in the media at almost weekly intervals these days with news of a tour and a hint of some precious ‘new material’, while BBC4 documentaries on Creation Records and films like the recent account of Oxford’s alternative music scene, Anyone Can Play Guitar, recount indie’s various ‘golden ages’. Lawrence of Belgravia is both part of this trend, and a disruption of it, because his presence and participation stop us from celebrating this recent past too complacently. He is something of a ghost at the nostalgia feast; a ghost with a comedy song about Rwandan landmines and Um Bongo. The light in which we’ve cast ‘indie’ and ‘the 90s’ fades into an agoraphobic sickliness; not everyone got out OK.

It is to Kelly’s credit that, despite the sadness at its heart, his film is so sincere, warm and affectionate. I loved it, but it left me chilled to the bone, writing 2000-word blog posts into the small hours, coshed with memories and having a good cry to Denim’s ‘I’m against the Eighties’. It was quite a trip, so I would advise any 30-something music nerds with similarly delicate dispositions to approach this film with caution.

Frances Morgan

Les enfants du paradis

Les enfants du paradis

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 November 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI Distribution

Director: Marcel Carné

Writer: Jacques Prévert

Cast: Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur


163 mins

It’s a wonder that this wonder-filled film ever got made. Work began on Les enfants du paradis in 1943 when France was occupied by the Germans, there were power shortages, rationed film stock, and a suspicious Vichy government that declared that films couldn’t be longer than 90 minutes. The epically involving Les enfants du paradis runs at three hours, and the Jewish composer Joseph Kosma and set designer Alexandre Trauner were forced to make their contributions clandestinely. To have made a simple, domestic drama in these circumstances would have been impressive, but Marcel Carné’s film is a riotous, romantic costume melodrama, with magnificent sets: the action takes place in a foggy duelling ground, backstage at the theatre, in a grand mansion and a rough and ready rooming house with over a thousand extras, many who were in the Resistance, milling through vividly recreated 1840s Paris.

The opening shot is a tumultuous, joyful street scene, a miracle of perspective in which a thronging crowd mass along Le Boulevard du Crime, in the theatrical district, where a dizzying array of street acts, from strong men to tight-rope walkers advertise forthcoming attractions. The camera gradually focuses on individuals in the crowd, Garance, the enigmatic heroine of the film, played with a cool, self-possessed insouciance by Arletty, and aspiring actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), who flirts with her. Falsely accused of being a pickpocket, Garance is saved by the melancholy Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), who wittily mimes the true circumstances of the crime, earns a rose from Arletty’s breast, and is immediately overcome with love. There are two more men in Arletty’s life: Lacenaire, a ruthless dandy of the criminal underworld with a villainous moustache, a frilled shirt and a neat line in bleak, cut-throat wit, and the Count Edouard de Montray, a cold-hearted, upper-class duellist who makes his aristocratic appearance towards the end of the first part of the film.

Affection, unrequited love, jealously, obsession and artistic ambition are played out against this theatrical background. It’s a complicated film that explores the nature of performance, with Baptiste’s clever mimes adding an extra layer to poet Jacques Prévert’s witty, stylised script. Baptiste acts out his heartbreak on the Funambules’ stage, as he falls in love with a statue, played by Garance, who comes to life and heads off with Harlequin, acted out by Frédérick. In the second half of the film (entitled ‘The Man in White’), the love story remains as complicated as ever, an unhappy, but involving drama of domestic pragmatism versus melodramatic passion. The ending returns to the crowded boulevard, crammed with festive Pierrots, for a spell-binding finale.

Carné’s film about actors acting was made in the most trying of circumstances, but the elaborate sets, sumptuous costumes and lovely, poignant orchestral score reveal nothing of the harsh realities of life in occupied France (many of the extras were starving members of the Resistance). The post-war nouvelle vague critics initially admired this impressive example of French poetic realism, but with its careful attention to detail and stylised script, it was a far cry from their own, spontaneous guerrilla-style approach to storytelling and filming and they soon turned against Carné, dismissing his work as the quaint, hidebound ‘cinéma de papa’. Yet Les enfants du paradis, for all its costume drama accoutrements, has a surprisingly subversive heroine in Garance. Older than the typical starlet, enigmatic rather than beautiful, she is entirely self-possessed, her character is adventurous, mysterious, prepared to experience all that life has to offer, and a deliciously elusive counterpoint to the emotional melodrama that surrounds her. Even Truffaut conceded in the end: ‘I have made 23 films, well, I would swap them all for the chance to have made Les enfants du paradis‘.

Eithne Farry

The Human Centipede 2

The Human Centipede 2

Format: Cinema

Release date: 4 November 2011

Venues: Nationwide

Distributor: Bounty Films/Eureka Entertainment

Director: Tom Six

Writer: Tom Six

Cast: Laurence R. Harvey, Ashlynn Yennie, Emma Lock, Katherine Templar

UK 2011

88 mins

Like last year’s infamous A Serbian Film, The Human Centipede 2 has managed to become the hot button issue of the UK film industry. In one corner, we have the BBFC; in the other, the fans. What is being fought over is not only the morals of British society but also our approach to controversial art in the future.

First, the BBFC banned the film, because they said it was impossible to cut it to an acceptable format. Now they’ve allowed it in a cut version although one member of the board abstained from voting in favour of the decision. Some critics love it, some absolutely hate it. Audience members throw up, some cheer, others boo. The contents have now become almost mythical for their gratuitous violence. So how does a low-budget horror film elicit such strong reactions from every segment of the film industry?

With The Human Centipede, Tom Six proved that horror did not need to live up to expectations to fulfil its potential. Audiences expected gross-out body horror of the most extreme kind, and he delivered a well-timed and skilful update of the mad scientist figure.

With the sequel he seems to have pulled out all the stops to deliver something visually extreme. However, at the core of his film lies a central performance that borders on slapstick. Laurence R. Harvey stars as Martin, a seemingly mild-mannered car park security guard who lives with his abusive mother. Martin seems to spend his days watching the original Human Centipede on repeat and putting together a shoddy plan to continue the work of Dr Heiter (Dieter Laser). As his psychosis blooms, no one around him is safe from his fantasies of playing doctor and conducting the ultimate centipede experiment.

In this sequel, Tom Six promises that the whole thing is ‘100% medically inaccurate’ and to say that he fully delivers on this claim is an understatement of sorts. Martin is an introvert, the kind of person who as a child would get picked on at school, and his understanding of surgery and human anatomy leaves a lot to be desired. However, Martin compensates for his lack of knowledge with a gleeful sense of enthusiasm that drives the film forward.

Laurence R. Harvey’s performance is pitch-perfect: Martin lies somewhere between the deadpan mannerisms of Buster Keaton and the full-blown psychotic tendencies of Henry. Each gesture, each facial expression perfectly conveys his character. He is not moral or amoral but free from these considerations - a child lost and never found.

Perhaps the biggest problem with The Human Centipede 2 is the forced cuts by the BBFC - reading their detailed report on the film, it’s hard not to feel cheated by these numerous snips, which create leaps in the narrative logic and a sense of discordance. However, as it stands, The Human Centipede 2 is still a terrific movie: if you can tune into its warped, droll humour and excessive brutality, this is one hell of an experience you are sure not to forget. Tom Six has managed to channel a true British nasty through his uniquely European approach. Unmissable.

Evrim Ersoy